23 July 2013 I met Lucinda Ellery at her London base in Hammersmith. Lucinda is someone I came across about 3 years ago when her work was featured in a documentary called ‘Girls on the Pull’. Like many, this was the first time I had heard of the condition Trichotillomania (TTM); that is to say, this was the first time I had heard this particular condition, where a person has an irresistible urge to pull out their own hair, given a name. I knew exactly what the condition was, as I had spent the previous 30 years thinking I was a complete freak, alone with this bizarre behaviour. And yet here it was, with a name, recognised and sadly suffered by many. The floodgates opened.
Of course I wasn’t alone, but who wants to admit they pull their hair out? Apparently 1 or 2 people in 50 (mostly female) will pull their hair at some stage in their lives. TTM belongs to a group of impulse control disorders; in other words, you don’t want to pull but you can’t help yourself. Furthermore, once a hair root has been plucked several times it desensitises and consequently, pulling sites often get wider and wider as the feeling of relief is lost from the original area. I can absolutely guarantee that the urge to pull is indeed irresistible; the tension that rises both before that urge and if I try to resist it, is physically overwhelming. Nevertheless, where giving in to the urge may relieve the tension and even be pleasurable in the short-term, eventually it leaves you feeling guilty and hating yourself; just like smoking, you know the benefits of stopping far outweigh giving in to temptation.
At the time of the original broadcast back in 2010, I considered contacting Lucinda, but frankly I was afraid of revisiting something that I was pretty sure I had dealt with to the point of not being able to deal with it anymore. I was also telling myself that I wasn’t pulling my hair out anymore and that the lack of re-growth was my own silly fault. But TTM is a reliable friend who is always there; where I perhaps wasn’t having any more of those ritual sessions that could last for hours of pulling the hair from my head until I had found the ‘perfect’ specimen, I was certainly having mini sessions of pulling it out from elsewhere on my body. Sufferers, such as me, often alternate between pulling sites to regain that feeling of relief or find other areas of the body to pull from.
Only yesterday I found myself searching for one of those particularly course and wiry hairs to pull from just over my ears after visiting my family, so to say I no longer pull it from my head would be lying. Most of the time I am able to stop myself, but this is a good demonstration of the fact that TTM really doesn’t go away, you’re just aware of it in some instances more than others. Right now I’m in an aware state; let’s say that generally I’m in a better place than I was 3 years ago. So where it’s always been in the back of my mind, republishing a blog piece I had written that mentioned TTM a few weeks back, I started to think more concretely about contacting Lucinda again and dealing with it once and for all.
If you’re after an ego boost, Lucinda is your woman! I came out of our consultation feeling fabulous. A lot of this had to do with her showering me with compliments; not ridiculous and unrealistic compliments, just the kind of things I should be saying to myself in the mirror every morning when I can face looking at more than just an eye in a hand mirror. I also felt that for the first time I had met someone who knew how to look TTM objectively in the face. She called it ‘self-calm’ and not ‘self-harm’ and instead of wagging the ‘stop doing that or you’ll go bald’ finger at me, as my family had done ever since I’d started to pull my hair out, Lucinda offered the kind of practical solutions I could deal with.
It was the first time too that anyone had looked under the surface of my thick chaotic barnet without gasping in disbelief at the fact that there is very little hair on the top of my head after 30 odd years of pulling it out. Imagine having to try and explain that away every time you walk into a salon?! As a result, the hair I haven’t pulled has been long, self-cut and self-coloured ever since the accident/burn/a bit of stress excuses ran out, which would be well over 20 years ago. I’m lucky in that my hair is very thick so the pulling sites are covered well; but to those who know me, how often do you see me with my hair down? Now you know why.
Now this is just the start of what I hope will be yet another one of my many journeys of self-development and I am generally someone who believes that the secret to eternal youth is indeed an inquisitive mind that is actively willing to develop. But I have to admit this is a little different. I am not someone who likes revealing any of the crumbly stuff that lies beneath the independent, tough, confident, ball-breaking exterior I wear, so going public with this is not going to be an easy task, I know that. But awareness needs to be raised and I couldn’t bear to think there are others like me out there who have no idea there are others like them, let alone practical help.
So I have decided to come out from behind my high barnet mask (if you’ll pardon the pun) and share my story and the journey that will hopefully restore my locks to their full and luscious potential. If that story helps inform, educate and help others along the way, then the embarrassment and I have to say now, shame, of admitting I am a TTM sufferer will be a small price to pay.
And the start of my story? Well, there are undoubtedly a number of issues that led me to start pulling my hair out. I know it was likely a combination of both my family circumstances and precocious puberty (in itself another story!). Although my parents’ relationship had been turbulent for most of my life, in 1980, just before I turned 10, there were a couple of events and corresponding consequences, that conspired to shake my world to the core and trigger a series of destructive behaviour patterns. It is probably fair to say that there is very little understanding of the emotional effects of precocious puberty now, so imagine how it was in the 70s/80s. As a result, the combination of events that year had a profound effect, not just because of what they were but because despite being 10 in actual years, my physiology was about 15 and extremely confused.
Now I call them “destructive behaviour patterns” and yet in hindsight I would say all of it has actually strengthened me. If the offer of turning back time was miraculously made to me, I would not chose to change anything, as there would be no guarantee that I would be the person I am today and I am rather partial to that person. Similarly I do not blame anyone for any of this – apportioning blame helps no-one, least of all me – TTM is just one of the ways we find to cope and it could have been a lot worse.
That is not to say if someone had offered me some TTM help when I was in my teens, twenties or thirties, I would not have grabbed it with both hands! When in 2010, just a few months shy of 40 I saw that documentary, the familiarity of it all made me shake and sob both with sorrow and anger. Convinced it was too late for me given the 30 year gap compounded the fear and it took another 3 years for me to pick up the phone. I’m glad I did.
To be continued …